A Jihadi in the Making

Islam Yakan, an Egyptian jihadi, not the character described in this story.
Islam Yakan, an Egyptian jihadi, not the character described in this story.

Powerful testimony from Rana Allam, about her former work colleague and fellow Tahrir demonstrator, in Daily News Egypt.

The difference between us, and it was quite minor back then, that he came from a family that believed in the Muslim Brotherhood and he was a religious young man, while I believed in a secular civil state. We never had a problem discussing such matters, and just as he was neither a hardliner nor ultra conservative, we agreed on the basis of democracy.

But then Rabaa happened.

Eventually he found his young brother, after weeks of torture at some detention facility. He could tell the torture was brutal by the marks on his brother’s face and body. They were then informed that the student was facing charges of terrorism and that his trial was due in a few days. By then, and because of the extended absence from work along with his psychological status, our friend was out of a job. He did not appear to mind the unemployment much, being too busy with his mother and sister who lost a husband/father and his tortured brother in detention facing terrorism charges.

Other troubles followed, and eventually he fled the country with his family. He is not described as in Syria, as I was expecting. But the attitude is similar.

My genius sweet colleague has become a bloody, vengeful, bitter man. He has joined the flock of those who rejoice at the murder of police officers, judges and soldiers. He is hailing the Almighty every time a death toll is announced. He is praying for God’s strength to be given to those “martyrs” dying for the cause. He goes on and on about jihad in Islam against those infidel murderers. He also calls for the heads of their supporters, from government officials to idiotic pro-army demonstrators. Right now, I do not think he minds killing his neighbour if he was a mere verbal supporter of the regime.

Early on after the fall of Morsi, many Islamists and others warned that in keeping the Brotherhood from democratic gains it would push them into violent efforts for power. I recognize the power of the logic, but have argued against it, though with troubled reservation of spirit. It is too akin to blackmail, even as many principles are violated.

But to the extent this account is an accurate description of the post-Morsi environment, the logic is different, and more unassailable. It is not the whole story of extremism, but Allam sums it up, in rhetoric surprising to appear in Egyptian media, even if in English.

Our rulers still deny this fact and continue to breed violence completely oblivious or uncaring of what that leads to. There are almost five million Brotherhood sympathisers in Egypt, given the parliamentary and presidential elections figures. The number might have decreased after the Brotherhood’s rule indeed, but how much? A few hundred thousands are enough to turn this country upside down. We should also count those who are not Brotherhood sympathisers but had their loved ones go through the same suffering. The families and friends of the tortured, murdered, unjustly imprisoned will be bitter enough to hate everyone else, and hatred is the root of evil. Does no one in this regime see that?


Protecting the Bad under Threat of the Worse

US Torture

In the United States, torture is no longer an allegation. As the US Senate released findings from thousands of internal CIA memos, the nation confirms — and makes public — the horrific treatment given to detainees.

Some of the debate, however, concerns whether or not the Senate errs by releasing the details. The argument accuses politicians of putting American lives at risk for the sake of political gain. If our enemies see this, they may act out against us. Indeed, as those living abroad, a few days earlier the US embassy put out an alert advising vigilance in the coming days.

It is debated whether or not American torture resulted in intelligence necessary to thwart terrorist threats. The report says no, others say yes.

But the basic premise of the desire to keep sordid details hidden is that transparency would result in greater harm. It is hard to imagine ‘greater harm’ for the human beings tortured, some of whom were innocent, others, certainly less so.

But what is asked is trust that we allow the good guys to do a certain amount of bad, so that the bad guys will not be able to do worse. There is a perverse logic here, and the argument may be true. As an American, I like to believe we are good guys, in the end.

Even in the face of terrible bad.

There is worse, of course, and it does not take much effort to find it. But without transparency, our good guys doing bad may well become the bad guys doing worse. In this case, it seems pretty clear some of them did.

Whether or not it was ‘legal’ is for the courts to decide. But it was immoral, and those responsible should be held accountable. Without accountability, the good to bad to worse progression becomes far more likely.

Is there a message for the rest of the world? Will our [cough] commitment to transparency and accountability inspire others to do the same? Likely not. If anything it will expose us to charges of hypocrisy, and perhaps embolden the worse-doers even more.

Intrepid human rights campaigners around the world are shuddering right now. Their work has always been difficult, even dangerous. Now, any fundamental American interest in the cause has been exposed. We have long been accused of only caring about human rights around the world where we had political benefit in doing so.

When convenient, it is accused, we look the other way. Apparently, we do so within our own borders also. Or, perhaps from shame, we outsource desired torture to others.

But if the rest of the world wants to point fingers at America, it must be noted that fear of the worse protects the bad among many. Here is a long litany of Israeli crimes against Palestinians, addressed to Christians who stand in (poorly informed?) support. Much of the pro-Israel rhetoric says the military action is necessary to defeat terrorism, against the specter of Islamist Hamas.

And I recently spoke to a Coptic activist in Egypt who, while fully opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, accuses the government of sparking fear in order to ignore demands for greater human rights.

‘Worse’ can be found easily in the so-called Islamic State, or among the drug cartels of Mexico. At what point does our worse begin to approach theirs?

Only when we begin to cover it up, make excuses, or seek its justification. The US Senate has taken the first step of transparency. America’s test now is to continue with accountability.

One school of thought, with a certain wisdom, says to deal with the rest of the world only on the basis of interest. It is foolish to imagine we can force the world to be moral, and we may well need immoral allies.

But we can be moral ourselves. Whether with race or torture, this is an opportunity for national soul searching. It is necessary to confess and repent.




Friday Prayers for Egypt: Prison Conditions

Flag Cross Quran


Reports have been ample from Egyptian prisons with accounts of mistreatment, even torture. And this week smuggled video purported a look inside, picturing squalid conditions and cramped quarters. The government denies the veracity of these sources, insisting that after the revolution a commitment to human rights has reformed the system. A visit from the National Council for Human Rights yielded conflicting testimony.

Meanwhile the broader issues of respect for human rights and the detention of thousands has taken the attention of several at the United Nations. Twenty-seven countries issued a statement against the government, and had their ambassadors summoned in return, warning them against meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs.

God, these are trying times in Egypt, with conspiracies swirling and legitimacies contested. But a nation is known by how it treats the least of its citizens. Bless those in prison. Comfort them in their troubles. Convict them of their sins. Visit them with your presence.

Give them their rights, God, and do so through the government. Do so through their lawyers. Do so through journalists and human rights activists. Egypt has a long and sordid history to overcome, and if the revolution has changed the discourse, reform will face many challenges. Empower those in the Interior Ministry who will abide by the right.

But where there is ill-treatment, and where there is fabrication, rid Egypt of both. Establish transparent systems that can hold all accountable. Remove the fog of uncertainty that clouds so many issues, that citizens of the nation would discern all truth.

And inasmuch as foreign nations claim to see clearly, may they find the log in their own eyes first. But use them, God, to pressure Egypt appropriately. It feels too much to ask the whole world system to reflect your will, but thank you that human rights are an international concern. Where there is hypocrisy, expose it. Where there is opportunism, void it. But let the light shining on Egypt reveal both its virtue and vice, that all may be clean.

May it be, God, that Egypt’s prisons are free of abuse – both now and in the future. Bless those there on both sides of the bars. No prison is wholesome, but may all emerge so. Let coming testimonies reflect this reality.



A Foreign Journalist in an Egyptian Jail

From Vocative, a disturbing account that hits too close to home:

I was reporting on the marchers, and not long after I gave the policemen cigarettes, a young police recruit grabbed me by the back of the neck. He slapped me on the head repeatedly as his friend took my camera from around my neck and my phone from my pocket. He marched me toward a small alley that leads off Tahrir Street, where I could see a number of other Egyptian men being penned in by some riot police.

I fumbled in my wallet for my press pass, from the Cairo Press Center. A senior member of the riot police looked at it and saw that it said “British.” He looked up at me and back down at my photo a few times before saying, in English, “I’m sorry.”

Assuming I was free to go, I asked for my phone and motioned for my pass. But I got a hefty push in the back and suddenly found myself with the other detained men. I called to a nearby police recruit and told him I was a British journalist and said there was some misunderstanding. He told me to put my hands behind my back. When I reiterated my point, he slapped me in the face.

He describes the conditions inside the police station, and though he does not appear to have been singled out for poor treatment, it was poor all the same:

The temperature in the room was rising. A 50-year-old teacher nodded his head gently against my shoulder. I turned around and saw a face of genuine sympathy, “I am sorry,” he said.

“Look,” he motioned to a corner of the room. I had completely missed a man of at least 60 crumpled in the corner. Both his legs were covered with birdshot, blood slowly pooling around his feet. I looked at the blood, and the smell immediately became unbearable.

We could hear screams from outside the door, which would open only to reveal yet another poor man being flogged for no apparent reason. The officers smiled at one another as they beat the men. They fit the stereotype of despotic state security so perfectly it would have been funny if it weren’t so depressing.

After about 90 minutes, they decided to move us—to a minuscule, enclosed courtyard in the middle of the building. Sixty people squeezed in like sardines, sweat beading off us. The tiled floors were dusty and covered in rubbish and aberrant marks of dried blood. I was pushed to my knees once again. I turned and tried to reason with my captors, but was quickly cut off by a kick to the back. “Look straight ahead!” would be the catchphrase for the rest of the evening.

I finally turned and stayed turned, covering the back of my head. I noticed that everyone else was in exactly the same position.

This was by far the most painful part of the day. Kneeling for close to three hours, crammed so closely together there wasn’t space for me to put my hands on the floor to help shift my weight.

It does turn out ok in the end, at least for him and a few others:

Around 10 p.m., about six hours after I was arrested, we were suddenly asked to stand up. I almost collapsed as my knees. Leaning on the man in front of me, I steadied myself and we filed out of the room and upstairs. We were told to line up in front of a notice board. I read the yellowed certificates and newspaper clippings trumpeting the police station’s valiant work of the past decades.

Again, we were pulled aside, one by one, and our details recorded. I stayed there silently while they sorted us into two groups, one with around 12 men and the other with closer to 50. Everyone looked exhausted, the blood on their shirts now that dull brown color.

After some paperwork and backslapping, the policemen sent the larger group back downstairs. The smaller group and I were free to leave.

I wonder what it would have been like in an American jail? Surely nowhere is the experience pleasant, and perhaps six hours is a rather fast processing.

In either setting, I hope I never have to find out. Comfort, comfort, for all who do.


Torture: Why I Signed the ‘Rebel’ Campaign

From Ahram Online:

In order to justify removing a standing president, first an author must defend his democratic credentials. After an extended introduction, he writes:

This was last October, and up until that point I had been convinced that President Mohamed Morsi was the legitimate president of Egypt, and that even though I did not vote for him due to my conviction that neither his political experience, his mental capabilities nor his moral make-up qualifies him to rule Egypt, I still considered him not only to be a legitimate president, yet my personal president.

My respect for Mohamed Morsi stemmed from my awareness that his legitimacy emanated from the ballot box, from votes by citizens like myself, despite their different political inclinations. And I was looking forward to the day when another round of elections would come, and I would vote against him again, and hopefully bring him down, a thing which he makes easy for me by his poor administration and his deplorable record in the realms of security, economy, and politics.

So why then remove him now? In the opening the author described his chief reason for participating in the January 25 revolution was the systematic use of torture by the police force. Therefore, he is outraged because:

I expected that the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, considering what they experienced in terms of oppression and injustice and torture at the hands of the past regime, would rush to restructure the security sector and put an end to the systemic torture still taking place in police stations, and to turn over those responsible for killing citizens to the authorities. Yet President Morsi and his Brotherhood opted to battle with the judiciary and the media, not the interior ministry, and they have turned a blind eye to daily horrors committed by the police.

Recall that January 25, the strategically chosen start date of the revolution, was the national holiday ‘Police Day‘. Many analysts suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood has played nice with the army and police and old regime in order to buy time to cement/protect their new found power. Some think they will still reform these sectors over the long term; others fear they only wish to replace the formerly ruling NDP and preserve the system.

Click here to see the Rebel Campaign petition translated into English.